I will officially be home in 3 months. Well now less than 3 months because it is taking me an inordinate amount of time to finish this blog post… Every time I try to sit down an write I get overwhelmed by all the things I need to say and remember and explain and comprehend, so it has taken me a while and I apologize for how long this post is going to be - India is one crazy, exciting country.
I’m in this very weird phase where I feel like 3 months is an eternity and I’m ready to keep moving, but I’m also planning all these other trips I want to go on because I can’t imagine a lifestyle not living out of my backpack. We will be in Cambodia very soon and I’m so excited to experience a new culture and food, but solemnly motivated to learn about their horrible history. I watched The Killing Fields, which just touched on the sickening details of the Khmer Rouge’s control over Cambodia.
Right now I am in Delhi. I’ve been here since December 16th, after taking an overnight bus from Dharamsala. I am living with another host stay family consisting of a mom, dad and 5-year-old son as well as Kika and Sophie, as roommates. The family is very accommodating and sweet and often refers to us as ‘Gods’ because Indian people treat guests as Deities. The father owns a clothing store and the mother is a housewife. They are considered upper-middle class; as they live in a very nice apartment complex, have a personal car and a maid that comes daily. I found it very interesting to learn the wife, Kitty, was only 18 when they got married. They do not speak very much English, which has been a struggle to communicate sometimes, but we have made it work. Kitty understands ‘toilet paper’, which is probably our biggest need.
Speaking of toilet paper, I got sick for the second time in India – poor me. Who knows what disgusting germ squirmed it’s way into my stomach, but that sucker did some damage. After 3 separate visits to the Max Healthcare Clinic, a 2-hour IV, passing out, and two muffins, I finally obtained some antibiotics and got better. I would like to note that I went to the bathroom 20 times in 24 hours and am applying for the Guinness Book of World Records with that shitty stat.
Rewinding for a minute –
Dharamsala was amazing. 10/10 would recommend visiting if you have the opportunity. It was fascinating to be immersed at the intersection of two major religions (Hindu and Buddhist) and two ethnicities. The people of Indian decent are often vengeful of the Tibetans because they have received so much foreign aid and resource assistance because of their exile from Tibet - they live in India as refugees quite comfortably. The Tibetans schools are considerably more funded and maintained than the ones Indian children attend.
On a different note, I woke up and ran in the Himalayan mountains every morning – I mean not trying to brag because it was excruciatingly difficult to run straight up hill and then straight back down, but the constant wheezing for air was worth it. Other highlights include the 2-day trek we did for the Independent Student Travel weekend. A group of 7 students and a guide we hired, hiked to Triund and then up to Snowline. The hike was challenging, but Triund was breathtaking and we camped overnight there in a tent. It was cold and uncomfortable, but that was easy to look past when we were woken up with chai and the unhindered image of the pink and orange watercolor sunrise over the mountains. Around Dharamsala we did many excursions through Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS, the NGO we volunteered with) - my favorites were the Norbulinga Institute of Tibetan Art and a talk with the founder of Jagori Grameen, a women’s advocacy group. We also talked with the director of the Tibetan Library, toured the Dali Llama’s temple and St. John in the Wilderness Cathedral. Mcleodganj is a very touristy town that is a 15-minute drive up the 1.5 lane winding mountain road. We often ventured up to meander through the open-air shops or to get a treat at a small bakery. Speaking of buying things – we didn’t have money until the last two weeks because of Prime Minister Modi’s Demonization (mandated all 500 and 1000 bills be taken out of circulation because of supposed black money issues – then issued a 2000 rupee bill which made everything harder because no one as that much change). TBB spent countless hours in the Western Union and the State Bank of India, tirelessly trying to transfer or exchange money. Thankfully in Delhi it has been less of an issue because more than 1 ATM works. In Dharamsala, my host family was beyond amazing and we have plans to reconnect in 9 years when I come back to India and become a doctor (I secured myself a job as the resident physician at Jagori Grameen).
[The organization’s core principles are centered on the 5 elements to extract energy for social change. It has strong ties to the environment and being consciously and socially aware of every action we make. The organization fights for women’s equality in education, jobs, health and rule of law - regarding mostly domestic violence cases.]
Quick summary of Amritsar: We travelled from Dharamsala in a less than desirable (meaning stopping every couple minutes and basically wooden seats) bus at 4 in the morning. The journey was 5 hours but we made it to Amritsar alive. We met Dan, an American man living in India who happens to be a Sikh. He showed us around and talked to us extensively about Sikhism and other religions and gave us a cultural and historical briefing of India. The Golden Temple (Sikh religion site of worship) was breathtaking. The premises accommodate between 20,000 and 30,000 people a day. A pool of water in which people can bathe surrounds the actual temple, made of pure gold. There is a walkway surrounding the whole pool with secret alcoves to go sit in and pray. When I was about to get into the temple, there was a 30-minute wait to get in, the evening prayer started. Everyone started chanting the same words as a man was saying over an intercom system. Eventually we all had to sit down and listen to some prayers. Inside the temple I caught quick glances of a man fanning a feather duster looking object over the holy book. The prayers were very directed– I was surprised by the almost hostile seeming phrases that were being chanted by a crowd of 20,000. The next day we went back to the temple and volunteered. The temple serves 3 meals a day for free to the 20,000-30,000 visitors. We ate breakfast in the cafeteria area, which was a full meal of rice, dal, chapatti, and potatoes. Then we went to the traditional chapatti making area and helped roll chapattis. Saoirse and I were not very good at making perfect circles at first, but we quickly learned with the help of other regular volunteers. Some people spend their whole life at the Golden Temple. They live on the premises, do volunteer work all day, and eat the prepared food. Sikhism’s main principal is service, but learning people devote their life to service is humbling. Everyone also has to cover his or her head when inside the temple.
In Dharamsala, everyone worked in pairs at 7 different preschools. The preschools were commissioned under the Integrated Child Development Scheme – a government run organization that works to combat child adversity by providing a holistic approach to early childhood education, in attempts to set children and families on a clear path to success. Sophie and I are doing our media project on early childhood education in India, so I’m not going to go into too much depth with the school here. Basically, it was a one-room cement building with some small benches and 6 or 7 broken toys. On average, eight 2 and 3 years olds would come everyday and we would do simple activities like rolling a ball or reciting 1-5 and coloring. The teacher could not speak English very well, so we often questioned what we should be doing. There was lots of crying and hitting and peeing outside on the grass, but at the end of the month, everyone was sad that the time was over. Sophie and I did paint an outstanding mural on one wall – there is a picture on my Instagram if you haven’t seen it. We won the mural competition that I made up and the teachers at the school were more than appreciative (they serenaded me with a Hindi song that involved touching most of my face and called me their daughter).
It’s now one of the last days in India and also New Years Eve. We are going to do some sightseeing today to the Red Fort (Mughal Empire Fortress Built by Shahjahanabad in 1648 and then invaded by the British around 1850). We are going to an international club tonight. Delhi has been very different than Dharamsala. I love the city atmosphere, but I wish we had more time and ability to venture out and explore the city. The pollution is appalling, if I rub my nose, black chunks come out. It constantly looks like it’s raining, and you cant see very far ahead of you. It’s confusing to drive through the city and see ‘beggar camps’ and then high scale malls boasting Louis Vuitton and Channel. We have gone to the mall a couple times because it’s so easy to gawk at stores like Zara, Starbucks, Sephora and Forever 21 when we haven’t seen them in so long. We also watched Rouge One a couple weeks ago, which was a source of great excitement for the group. Before the movie we had to stand for the Indian National Anthem, and there was also an intermission at one of the most dramatic scenes of the movie – both instances caused some giggles and confusion.
In Delhi, I worked in a kindergarten class run by an organization named Vidya. We worked in an area called Okhla, which is one of the largest industrial slums in Delhi. There are not many pre-primary education opportunities around India, especially for impoverished children. The organization wasn’t even a school, but an afterschool help center. We worked in the morning so there were only boys in the school (the kindergarten had boys and girls) because girls go to actual school in the morning and the help center in the afternoon, and boys vice versa. The kindergarten class was a 10x10ft cement room with a carpet and 25 children, sitting in 5 rows of 5. The class was freezing cold and children wore hats and coats. Sophie and I led some basic activities on shapes, numbers, fruit names and colors and also sang many songs and poems. The students also participated in stretching outside and eating lunch in a school setting.
This blog post has lost most, if not all, of its direction so I’m just going to keep chugging along with my thoughts.
On the 23rd of December we travelled by train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. The train ride was 3 hours long and 3 hours late – typical India! We rod in Tuc-Tuc’s to a hostel and had a late dinner upon arrival. The next day we toured the Taj. It was sad see how bad the pollution has gotten when we couldn’t see the Taj at all from the first place you should view it from, but it got clearer as the day went on. I learned that Mosques don’t display any pictures of people or Gods because they believe humans are incapable of conceiving those images and only Gods can imagine and display life. They are decorated with scripture from the Koran and flowers. We also toured the Agra Fort, which is where ((someone?!) in the royal Mughal family was exiled to imprisonment by his son. You can see the Taj from the Agra Fort, which is an ingenious accumulation of architecture. Then we took a train back to Delhi and went out to dinner at a very nice restaurant. I ordered risotto, which made me one happy camper on Christmas Eve. Christmas day, I got up early to Face Time my family and then went to the fancy mall to get last minute Christmas gifts for the group. We had a nice afternoon relaxing at CCS and exchanging secret Santa gifts. It was very strange to be away from my family, and even sadder not to be Snowboarding in Steamboat after Christmas, but the group environment felt like home and we the day was one to remember. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to celebrate Christmas in India, so I could not complain! Also, Indians celebrate every holiday, so there was no lack of Christmas decorations around the city.
Moving on - we are nearing the end people do not worry!
Other highlights of Delhi include the Lotus Temple (A Baha’i place of worship), the Lodi Gardens (Central Park-esque mixed with scattered tombs of important people), and Gandhi’s memorial (the house he spent his last 144 days and the garden in which he was shot).
I want to give a shout out to the wonderful CCS staff, Lalu, Nayha, Sunnil, Jaggi, Pawan, Bela, Bwatan, and Jennifer. They are some of the most kind and accommodating and best cooks I know. I highly recommend volunteering with Cross Cultural Solutions, they are organized and truly understand the importance of international volunteerism for improving global perspectives and development. CCS has many locations, including Costa Rica, Morocco, and Brazil, and many different fields of volunteer work. I plan to return to India in college and volunteer in the health field, preforming basic checkups on patients.
One of my favorite parts of India was seeing so many walks of life interacting simultaneously. The traffic, as excruciating and unorganized as it is, seems to flow so smoothly that it is almost magical. Cars and scooters and bikes hauling large poles or crates, cows, children, pedestrians, and dogs all use the streets together and all usually get to their destination safely. The only accident I saw in over a month was a car mirror running into a tuc-tuc. I became extremely conditioned to the fact that you almost get into about 4 accidents a minute, so it doesn’t help to stress about it. I laugh to myself thinking about how enraged some people I know would get after getting cut off so many times, and the constant honking just to let someone know you are there or that they need to move over. I think I might prefer the method of ignoring all traffic rules and forget how to drive on the right side of the road when I get home. It makes sense to me that if you are going to run a red light that you would just honk incessantly. Then it’s not your fault if you run into a car, because you adequately warned them you were coming.
Since we spend so much time in the car because Delhi is such a massive city, it gives me a lot of time to look out the window and think. I’ve seen so many impoverished people walking the streets begging for food, but also many people mindlessly ignore the evident problem, as they are just ‘beggar people.’ The caste system is still alive in India and while it was harder to observe as an outsider, people are still subject to a life sweeping the streets and being labeled as a member of the ‘backward’ (yes they call people that for real) class. It’s hard to watch people live in poverty, knowing they have adopted a fatalistic mindset that they are living to serve those above them, and not knowing the most effective way to help them. I have many ideas formulating in my mind about how to reduce poverty, mostly through improving public health statistics in developing nations. Our seminars in India revolved around education, but were mostly aimed at discussing inequality and oppression of different types of people within the education system. I believe empowering education is the necessary foundation for all social change, but my latest idea is to develop a granola bar that can be grown from the ground ;-)
Coming to India, I considered it a developing nation. Leaving, I don’t think that label still applies. There are many parts of India that need immediate attention and many people that need assistance to gain footing, but there are so many aspects that are improving rapidly or are very effective currently. I feel like I have a very basic understanding of India because I have only seen 4 of the 29 states - every Indian I have talked to has stressed the extreme diversity of the country and I want to see more. I fully plan to return soon. India, it’s been real. Thank you for showing me a world much different than my own, but one that is so much cooler than Iowa ;-))
An attempt to document my journey through 5 countries, 3 global issues and billions of people